By William Mills
On Sunday 11 October Sussex Yacht Club boats shared the harbour lock with a star of WWII who rescued 280 servicemen at Dunkirk in 1940.
Llanthony was built in 1934 by Camper & Nicholson for Lord Astor of Hever Castle.
Displacing 61 tons, her 77 ft hull exudes old world charm of a gentleman’s motor yacht yet it turned out to be one of the heroic ‘little ships’ of Dunkirk fame.
As one of the yachts heading out for a morning’s racing, we chanced to share the lock with her and actually tied up alongside.
Llanthony was visiting Shoreham on route for Ramsgate and the River Thames and we were lucky enough to speak to her skipper and crew while we waited for the lock to fill.
On 10th May 1940 Hitler’s armies swept westwards.
On 14th May things were already so bad that the Admiralty made secret plans to gather all craft capable of crossing the Channel and assemble them on the south coast of England.
The British Army (called the BEF or British Expeditionary Force) found itself cut off and surrounded by the German Army.
With it’s back to the Channel it faced certain destruction or capture as the only port still in British hands was Dunkirk and too clogged to handle a full scale evacuation.
So what was to be known as Operation Dynamo, under Admiral Ramsey headquartered in Dover harbour, swung into motion.
Between 28th May and 4th June 1940 no less than 338,000 troops were taken from the beaches in open boats under continual air attack from the Luftwaffe.
The LLanthony rescued 280 personnel and was commanded by 20 year old Canadian Lieut. Robert Timbrell, who takes up our story, speaking after the war to the Canadian Broadcasting Service;
It was a very shallow beach and at low tide, the water went out a long way.
We were being shelled by the Germans, the town was in flames and after we had anchored, I sent the Petty Officer in with the boats; I stayed with the yacht.
We could take about 120 on each trip and our instructions were to return as soon as we were loaded. We did that for a couple of trips.
Then, on the third or fourth trip, we got bombed. Although the RAF were doing a marvellous job, the odd German got through. We were hit on the fo’cs’le.
I lost about five of the crew and both my anchors snapped. The fuel tanks were forward of the engine room and the fuel pipes were severed so that both engines died.
We drifted up on the beach. It all happened so quickly – one minute we were there and the next we were damaged, drifting and running aground.
It was a sunny afternoon and there were shells falling all the way down the beach with thousands of soldiers asking to be taken back to England.
It was Day four of the evacuation and a stream of ships were going in and out. We drove some trucks into the water to form a small jetty. Then, at high tide, we could go alongside the trucks and men could walk on top of them and jump aboard.
While I was high and dry, I heard the English voice of a sergeant marching some troops down, calling out the order to halt. He was tired and his uniform was not parade ground standard, but he was still smart.
He turned out to be from a Guards regiment. He asked if he could help and I told him to get a Bren-gun carrier and drive it out as far as he could in the water until the engine stopped so that I could use it to anchor by.
That is what he did and my two civilian diesel engineers repaired the fuel pipe, got the capstan going and winched us off.
They put a plate over my bombed fo’cs’le and we sailed back to England.
Robert Timbrell, later an admiral in the Canadian Royal Navy, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at Dunkirk.
What a treat to see living history! Let’s hope they have a good journey and arrive safely.